The varied and decorated career of author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

by rebeccaswirsky

Published in New Statesman 3 February 2018

The 17 stories in At The End of the Century, drawn from past collections, chronicle Jhabvala’s concern with cultural encounters, dislocation and the immigrant experience.

Few fiction writers can boast a Booker prize, two Oscars, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and a CBE. Yet the German-Jewish author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala achieved just that, with her novel Heat and Dust (1975) and Merchant-Ivory adaptations of EM Forster’s A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992) – despite casually listing writing film scripts as a “recreation” in Who’s Who.

Raised in Nazi Germany, Jhabvala spent her adolescence in London, her middle years in Delhi (bringing up three daughters with her architect husband, Cyrus Jhabvala) and her final decades in New York. By the end of her life, aged 85 in 2013, she had completed 12 novels, eight collections of short stories and 23 screenplays with Merchant Ivory Productions. A natty ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for social nuance earned her comparisons with Austen, Forster and Chekhov. She depicted the West’s infatuation with India (mainly by pairing affluent older women with charismatic gurus) as well as a middle- and lower-middle-class India seen by few foreigners. Later stories would explore the experiences of immigrant Europeans in New York; for Jhabvala, Europe would forever smell “of blood”.

Born into a comfortable middle-class family in Cologne in 1927, Jhabvala’s apartment overlooked the city’s main avenue and her grandfather was cantor to the biggest synagogue. She fled Germany with her brother and parents in 1939. A few years after the war her father committed suicide, having learned of his entire family’s death (more than 40 in number) in concentration camps. In London in 1949, she met her lifelong love, Cyrus Jhabvala (“Jhab”), a Parsee architect from New Delhi. They married and moved to India in 1951. Jhabvala was smitten by her new country, claiming: “It was like childhood, what childhood should be.”

The 17 stories in At The End of the Century, drawn from past collections, chronicle Jhabvala’s concern with cultural encounters, dislocation and the immigrant experience. Misogyny – and sensuality – bubble up through impeccably constructed prose. In “The Widow”, Durga fails to seduce a teenager – whom she describes as “a young animal full of sap and sperm” – renting one of her rooms with his family. Shamed into spirituality, urged to pray to Krishna “as a son and as a lover”, Durga duly renounces her widow’s fortune and her relatives move in, happily reaping the benefits.

In “An Experience of India”, the narrator, the wife of an unnamed journalist, is questioned by her Indian lovers about how many men she has slept with and if she is ashamed. Whether an adored spiritual guru or somebody else’s husband, at the moment of climax the men are united in shouting “Bitch!” In “Desecration”, the womanising Hindu superintendent of police, Bakhtawar Singh, has an affair with Sofia, a married Muslim woman initially described as “the sort of person who exudes happiness”. In a cheap hotel room, Sofia is told to chant Muslim prayers in time with an unseen guest while being taken from behind. At the affair’s end, Sofia commits suicide and Singh smoothly transfers to a new district.

Jhabvala’s relationship with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory began in 1961 when they suggested she write a screenplay of her 1960 novel The Householder (which she did, in eight days). They continued to work together and in 1976, no longer charmed by her host country but overwhelmed by it, Jhabvala left Delhi to lease a studio above their New York apartment. Their alliance lasted more than 40 years, with Merchant commenting on their confluence of identities: “It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory… I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American.”

Of screenwriting and fiction, Jhabvala always held the latter in higher regard. On the page, she could forensically explore the hair’s breadth between pleasure and pain, loss and hope. This collection does not offer happy tales – rather, stories in which the acquisition or abandonment of happiness dominate. Characters falsely believe themselves to be happy, are miserable at the cost of being happy, or are unable to account for the happiness of others.

Jhabvala never wrote directly about her past (although she once referred to it in a speech called “Disinheritance”, while accepting a 1979 Neil Gunn Fellowship for literature). Instead, her personal history is told obliquely through the violence, shattered dreams and fatalism within her fiction. The writer JM Coetzee’s words resonate: “All autobiography is storytelling; all writing is autobiography.”

At the End of the Century
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Little, Brown, 448pp, £20